A new chapter begins in the multi-verse series.

*

 

The dusty room was cluttered with decades-old cobwebs clinging to corners and dangling from the overhead chandelier. It was a very old room, the kind that would suffer arthritis and cataracts if it had the prerequisite body parts to be so afflicted. Instead of these, however, it boasted enough space for a small freighter-ship, which had been largely employed for ostentatious and exceedingly expensive paintings and gaudy sculptures. It had the gallerias look, and on first glance one might expect to see art enthusiasts wandering the hallway, enjoying the subpar artwork and rotting sculptures, pulling their baggy clothes tight against the chilling draft.

Davoine collapsed into his chair, breathed heavy, chest heaving. Fingers worked intricately at his temples, massaging the blossoming headache.

‘That boy,’ he whispered.

He rummaged around the desk in front of him – a blocky onyx slab, refined from Davoine’s favourite jet-mine at the bottom of the Janhal Ocean. A mine, coincidentally, he had inherited from his father, and his father had inherited from his father, and so and so forth, and now Davoine was reflecting on what would be expected of his son.

The bottom drawer grinded open, Davoine removed an oily-black graphite slab, etched with Mejlin runes, an archaic language no longer used by contemporaries, but Davoine enjoyed the mystery the runes could create. Very few knew how to read them, a sort of crude and basic encryption that cloaked his writing.

On the slab there was written a list of names, an extensive roster of potential candidates; heirs, to be more precise. He couldn’t give his company over to his real son, have the ungainly idiot bundle and carelessly destroy everything his ancestors had worked for. He’d have to grease a few palms but he’d clandestinely ensure his company’s survival, and he’d even get to choose his successor, somebody in which he would find confidence, determination, cut-throat business acumen; somebody who wouldn’t fumble the ball of responsibility. Or trip over it. Or run away from it as if it were a bomb.

He’d already chosen his favourite: Manoe Melner, a young go-getter industrially endowed, and genetically remarkable. His hind-arms were as large as Davoine’s front-arms, and his chiselled chin and jawline would bring shame to the most curved and finessed mountain, of which there were many on the planet Jenhan.

Manoe was beginning to feel like the only option for Davoine; a solid heir to his fortunes, a promising and ambitious future champion in the gladiatorial arena of the stone-works. His son was more like the janitor who had to clean the arena afterwards, later to take an accidental tumble into the lions’ den.

There was a sound not unlike a pigeon’s squeaky death-rattle, and the main doors screeched open, pained, slow and with tender trepidation, like the incursion was intended to be stealthy.

‘What do you want?’ said Davoine.

A skinny figure sidled toward the desk, sluggish, fearful. He was a young, wiry, blue-haired man, built like a needle, with sad brown eyes that seemed to always droop depressively, just like their owner, and all four arms waggled indolently at his side. If Davoine had a litter, this would be the runt. It wasn’t so much that he was perpetually snivelling and weak, it was that he had shown as much interest in running his father’s business as a coffee bean would show in being in a cappuccino, and lived a life Davoine considered rampantly imaginative and self-destructive; reading books, expanding his mind, broadening his horizons and absorbing other cultures, exploring the world at large from paper and ink portals.

Davoine had beat his son during his younger years to knock some sense into him, to stop him espousing wild and esoteric fantasies. It was his opinion that a child is born into his family and carries with them all familial hopes and sins and futures, and that is all the child will aspire to believe in.

Mevoine took the seat across from his father, twirled his thumbs. He was, to Davoine, unsettling to look at. It would take nothing more than a strong breeze to knock him down, and he looked like he might collapse at any moment.

‘I’ll ask again,’ Davoine hissed. ‘What do you want?’

‘We have s-s-something to discuss,’ said Mevoine feebly.

His innate stutter boiled Davoine’s blood.

‘Could you stop stammering like a broken record, boy? Spit it out!’

‘I’m leaving,’ said Mevoine.

Davoine’s eyes sparkled. Hiding his hatred for his derisory son had been abandoned some twenty years ago; by sheer coincidence, this happened around the same time Mevoine was born. If Mevoine was leaving perhaps he wouldn’t have to employ the messy skills of Harnal ‘Neck-Breaker’ Smith, who was rather aptly named.

‘Leaving your father, are you? It’s about time, I’d say. Finally running off into the world to make your own fortune, and doing me a favour at the same time. I think this is the first time I’ve ever been pleased with one of your decisions.’

He opened a stone bottle on the desk, poured two glasses of a sickly green liquid known as Kani, an alcoholic drink renowned for its hallucinogenic qualities when consumed in large volumes.

‘And where is it you’re going?’

Mevoine shifted unsteadily.

‘I’m going to f-fight a w-w-w-w…’ He gulped. ‘A war.’

Davoine stopped mid-drink, gingerly placed the glass down. ‘There hasn’t been a war in nearly two reks. This isn’t another fantasy, is it?’

‘No,’ said Mevoine, stoically.

‘Where is this war, then?’ said Davoine, eyes narrowed.

Mevoine in a war tickled what little humour Davoine had; the idea of this scraggly, meek and timid stutterer stumbling haphazardly onto a battlefield, weapon raised, staring down barrels, winking at death on an hourly basis, a heroic and valiant soldier bathed in his enemies’ blood was, quite frankly, ridiculous. Mevoine was a soldier in the same way a pine needle is a tree. But his hope pricked when he considered Mevoine in a trench, cowering from an orbital bombardment as it rained down on his head. A nauseating, vicious hope.

‘Everywhere,’ said Mevoine, cryptically.

‘Well, wherever it is you’re going, I hope it’s very far away.’ Two glasses were swiftly emptied. ‘I’ll make the necessary arrangements to have your belongings taken care of. I hear the smelters up north are particularly talented at destruction.’

‘No need,’ said Mevoine. ‘I don’t have any b-b-belongings.’

‘Well, I’ll get rid of everything you have.’

‘I’ve got nothing.’

‘When do you leave?’ The question was laden with optimism.

His son nervously scribbled his fingers on the desk. ‘As soon as w-w-we’re done here.’

‘That’s very soon,’ Davoine chuckled, his fingers four fat pyramids. ‘Let me know if you require help on the way out, I’ll have the servants chuck you to the kerb. Whenever you want. I’ll even throw in a free kick up the backside.’

‘That won’t be n-necessary,’ Mevoine assured him. ‘They w-won’t remember me. And neither will you.’

Davoine bent forward, hunched over the desk, eyes blazing. A chance to forget his son was like discovering a secret vein of molten gold buried beneath a jet-mine. He had taken to drinking shortly after Mevoine was born, a simple and effective way to entomb his shame in a crypt of self-indulgence and fermented joy, and it had worked until he became a teenager, started to explore on a social level, and no amount of alcohol could hide or diminish his hatred.

‘Is that so?’ he said. ‘Could you leave sooner and get the process started ahead of schedule?’

Mevoine nodded, weakly slipped out of his seat.

‘I w-w-wish I could say it was nice knowing you,’ he whispered. ‘But we both know it would be a lie.’

He paused at the door.

‘You were a horrible father.’

‘And you,’ Davoine retorted coldly, ‘a woefully inadequate son.’

Then there was silence, an icy wave of deformed quiet and calm, alien to the sculpture-riddled gallery. Davoine looked down at the empty glasses, confused. Had there been someone else with him? Why had he poured two drinks? He was sure someone had been there with him, partaking in conversation. And then there was the list lying on the desk: why had he bothered with it? He didn’t have a son of which to speak, no heir, no dignified successor, and the answer was obvious: Malnoe Melner, the youthful and ruthless prodigy that could take over the business and look good doing it.

He hadn’t noticed the iridescent tide crash over him, the flimsy and glowing line of reality reshuffle around him, that left him without a son.

*

The hallway was cramped and crowded, and the huddled throng shoved and elbowed and kneed and squeezed their way to the front in a deafening, savage drone. Mevoine had the advantage of four arms, which he utterly failed to use to their full potential, due to his deficient body strength and docile persuasion. Others with multiple limbs, such as what looked like humanoid spiders, were like feral tornadoes, carving a calamitous path where one wasn’t already open.

Sliding backward, Mevoine dropped back into the crowd’s centre, where he had formed a defensive circle of personal space, and there he began to reflect.

Leaving his family had been easy, leaving his friends had been easier, since he didn’t have one, but anxiety boiled away in the heated cauldron of his stomach. He had conditioned his mind to appreciate the coddle of books and the comfort of his own room, the four-wall stone prison, like a self-imposed Stockholm syndrome, and he was now challenging that imprisonment, his own selfish regime, and he couldn’t decide if he was thrilled or terrified. It is not surprising how often those two emotions overlap.

He was reminded that everyone around him shared the same experience, a communal abandonment and self-sacrifice, albeit with their own individual flares. Some of the things surrounding him like shepherded cattle didn’t look like people at all, but he knew them to be from his own universe, which was vaguely comforting, in the same way knowing the tiger that bit off your hand is from your own planet.

He was bathed in soothing blue light which spilled from above, emitted by a curiously adventurous cyan globe that patrolled the ceiling. Mevoine had never heard of a camera, but if he had, he probably didn’t have the intelligence to deduce that the light was indeed a sort of camera.

The hallway bottle-necked and the undulating crowd contracted. Mevoine shrunk his lanky body, pulled his arms across his chest, balled up like a hedgehog on the defensive.

He felt alone. He had been alone before, of course; and in fact he’d been alone for so long that it was his mind’s natural equilibrium. But this was a different kind of alone. This wasn’t being lonely in his room, nose poked into a book’s gutter, this was a heightened loneliness; lost in a distant ocean, sharks and jellyfish nuzzling his toes in the murky depths. He didn’t miss his father or mother, they had long abandoned him, and he certainly didn’t miss the dusty and empty halls of his family home, where his company was demeaning sculptures and ogling paintings, but he missed the simplicity and the dullness, the inevitable insipidness each day would offer on a lukewarm plastic plate. He had no idea what the future held for him here.

And as for ‘here’, it was a definitive mystery, a cracked orb hanging in the sky far above the planet, a faded metallic blue sun caught inside the atmosphere like a butterfly in a jar. Mevoine had stepped on a strange circle and was no longer in the family courtyard. He had been told to expect this; didn’t stop him gawking in shock at his rather sudden change in location.

Then there was the people, if they could be called people. He had also been to expect this, to be inundated with all kinds of creatures collected from other planets. It was difficult to swallow, more difficult with the problem surrounding him like a sweaty, long-haired crowd at a rock concert, but he had already come to terms with creation as a multi-verse, his planet one tiny pebble on an endless beach. Creatures with eight arms and horns and wings didn’t seem that bad when he considered them a sliver of the whole. Normal was a funny concept; on his planet, normal meant two eyes, four arms, and an obsession with stone commodities, but up here, on a spaceship that was definitely abnormal, all that established and conditioned idealism was thrown out the metaphorical window and swallowed up by the amorphous blob that was non-conformity.

Mevoine liked it. The non-conformity and dissimilarity, that is. He didn’t like the volume of it, literal and otherwise. With the enfolding mob crowding around him, he felt like the cork in a champagne bottle, and the pressure was building at an exponential rate.

A line of white lights segregated the blue, a ghostly barrier that flared as the crowd moved across it. Mevoine twitched nervously as the white lights slid above him and blared like spotlights, burned into his retinas. He sensed the lights study him, evaluating, deducting and processing. Somewhere, data was shooting through the ship, correlating with a data-bank, sharing a digital coffee and going over the events of the day like two old friends, and accumulating file after file on Mevoine’s paltry and sheltered life.

As the crowd contracted again, into a slender queue, he deflated as much as possible, dodged the surrounding swarm. Shards of conversation reached him, random segments that didn’t make sense, or were in languages completely unknown to him. That would be an alien concept soon enough, he thought.

The hall finally gave way and opened into a vast atrium, an airport type foyer; benches between ceiling-high statues of various heroes in bronze and stone edifices, a domed and curved roof that hurt the eyes to look at as if its dimensions weren’t wholly in agreement with each other, variegated plants of an alien nature shaded a colourful and kaleidoscopic bouquet, and swarms of creatures threaded between the arching branches and leafy green limbs.

There weren’t supermarkets on Mevoine’s planet, but the sprawling scene was certainly akin to the bustling lanes of shelves, the miniature city trapped inside a blocky and produce-peppered consumerist hive. In such a teeming place he deflated, wanted to run and hide and wrap himself up in a warm cosy blanket, shut himself off from the rest of the world, but there was a reason he was here. And that reason was the driving force behind everything he had been doing for the last two months.

He followed the main bulk of the crowd until they split, one section disappeared into a side-room and another levitated to the second floor, over the white barrier, and he was left alone and lost as streams of creatures meandered around him. He spotted a soldier standing stone-faced in the corner; he recognised him as a fellow Jenhanian.

Mevoine stood at the soldier’s front until finally, after a minute of awkward and tense nothing, the soldier relented.

‘Can I help you?’ he said.

‘I…’ Mevoine gulped down hard. Talking was something he had learned to avoid since an early age, his stutter a mental wall between him and sociability, and gradually he was conditioned to keep his mouth shut.

‘Yes?’ said the soldier impatiently.

‘S-sorry. I don’t know w-w-where to go.’

The soldier tapped his forehead, irritated. ‘Who’s your Nephilim?’

‘Nelia,’ said Mevoine, recalling the name given to him months ago.

‘Over there,’ said the soldier, and pointed with two arms. ‘Take the lift down three floors, that’s where Nelia’s troops are. Think you can manage?’

‘An en-entire f-f-f…’ Mevoine grimaced. ‘F-f-f…’

‘Yes. On you go, they’ll be expecting you.’

Mevoine staggered off, painfully uncertain, towards the archway the solider had pointed to, skirting between the mass of furry creatures and slimy ball-things. His heart punctuated each step, loudly drumming in his chest like a demented gorilla. If Mevoine had had a friend during his life, it would be anxiety, and it would be the oldest, closest friend he had ever had, and presently it was grabbing him by the hand, pulling him sideways, whispering under its breath that this was a precarious adventure for which he was ill prepared; a devil on his shoulder that sowed discomfort and reaped sadistic delight from the burgeoning field of his delicate squirming.

It had been difficult enough to simply speak to the soldier. Maybe he wasn’t ready to be in a war, to fight tooth and claw for the cause, lay down his life in servitude, reign supreme over the scorched battlefield in a pan-universal war, ascend from the blood-stained corpses of his fellow soldiers and enemies as a war-hero. Maybe he should go to bed, forget the whole thing.

He looked around at the surrounding swarm and decided it would be worse for his good old friend anxiety if he tried to return home.

*

‘Name?’

‘Mevoine.’

‘That your full name?’

Green eye-stalks fluttered like flowers in a breeze.

‘M-Mevoine Gavel,’ he said.

Claws danced dexterously across the air, pantomiming typing.

‘For Nelia, yes?’ said their owner. Mevoine nodded. ‘Got you here. You know the drill?’

Mevoine twirled his thumbs, nervous. ‘The drill? Aren’t those used for s-s-stone works?’

‘Stone works?’ The green blob in front of him rubbed its eye-stalks. ‘No. No. The drill – the procedure. You know where you need to go, who to see?’

Mevoine’s expression said it all. Green-blob sighed, using a mouth not entirely fashioned for such an action. Mevoine had this effect on people, even ones from other planets or universes, where his discomfort lent its considerable weight to unsuspecting victims, pushed down on them until they gave in, and sucked them into the black-hole of social awkwardness. He had come to accept this as an extension of himself.

The hall they were in wasn’t as cramped as the foyer he had arrived in, the crowd not as absolute and constant, but Mevoine couldn’t help sucking his elbows into his sides, even when no one was around. It was unbearably clean, too; the kind of squeaky clean that incites rebellion, sparks disobedient inclinations, and usually ends up streaked in mud or paint or trash. Mevoine felt the allure, a little bubble of ‘let’s go find something dirty and rub it all over the white’, but kept it to himself.

‘Follow the corridor,’ said Green-blob. ‘Turn right and keep walking.’

Then where?

‘Okay,’ he whispered.

‘And then you’ll be properly conscripted,’ Green-blob explained, distantly. ‘Nelia’s busy here, so you’ll be dealing directly with her Presus, Morombe. Know him?’

Mevoine shook his head.

‘He’s Nelia’s go-to-guy, her right hand man, so to speak.’ Green-blob’s eye-stalks drifted around. ‘Like a royal advisor, he takes care of business, speaks on her behalf, etcetera. He’s your boss.’

‘I thought the Ogrohad w-w-w…’ He gulped. ‘The Ogrohad is the boss, isn’t It?’

‘If the Ogrohad speaks to you,’ said Green-blob, ‘I’ll cut off my arms and add to your collection. It doesn’t speak to Vanguards, It barely speaks to Nephilim. Take it from me: do as Morombe says and you’ll be fine. Unless Nelia gives you a direct order, always follow his directions.’

Sounds easy enough, thought Mevoine. Take orders, do as you’re told, follow instructions, and don’t mess up. The latter would be difficult, impossible perhaps, but the rest he would do with conviction and faith. And the blind obedience that convoys cowardice.

Green-blob glared at him.

‘Thank you,’ he said quietly, and moved off, leaving Green-blob waving in the air, typing on an invisible keyboard.

As he walked down the corridor he reflected on his choices and his immediate surroundings. His home planet was down below, a green-blue ball hovering in empty blackness, and he was high up in the atmosphere in some kind of massive spaceship, finding his path through an unparalleled war, giving his life for faith.

Panic bubbled in his chest, a sudden uneasy wave, as he considered what he was doing. He was out of his depth, alone and lost, and the crowd didn’t care; to make matters worse the path to culmination was furtive, abstruse, like a jigsaw puzzle minus the final picture, and all he could do was stumble in the dark towards where he hoped he would accidentally blunder into the right place. His old friend anxiety was back, with vicious thoughts on its mind; it would be rubbing its palms together and cackling manically if only it had the necessary features.

The wall buttressed his shoulder, slumped into its sharp white and harsh coddle. He leaned into it, breathing laboured, heartbeat like a jackhammer, sweat pouring down his face and hazing his vision. His hands and knees were trembling, he felt like there was something in his chest clawing its way out through the ribcage, cleaving flesh and muscle aside, and his body was just a playground for unbalanced chemicals and unneeded, unwarranted distress.

He wanted to be at home, in bed, curtains closed, the hearth in a book circle, cut off from the world; the kind of alone he wanted to be. He’d even apologise to his father, for all the good it would do, he’d beg and scrounge for favour and forgiveness, if it meant he could be back in his comfort zone, and not enclosed by undulating and unforgiving swarms.

The constant crowd made it worse; the eternal river of peering faces, half-faces, and eyes and concerned glares and whispering and pointing; Mevoine felt like a freak, a circus side-show act, falling apart as the crowd jeered and booed and bullied, their faces thrown back in zealous and cruel laughter.

A warm hand on his shoulder shocked him back into reality.

‘You all right?’

He swivelled his head sideways, peeked out the corner of his eye. Anxiety had majority control over the stakes of sense, but they rallied to deliver a promising quarterly report.

The hand connected to a young woman with beautiful and buggy blue eyes, like two sapphire gems under a magnifying glass, curly golden hair that rolled down her slender face like a waterfall, a dimpled chin, a generous and warm smile, and most importantly – possibly the most pertinent detail in regards to the woman – two feathery wings extended from her back, and wrapped around Mevoine like a cherry-coloured curtain. She wore a black crop-top and jeans, and gave the impression she frequented anywhere that played loud rock music.

Anxiety stepped back for a second, made way for awe and beauty. He’d never seen anyone like this before, the kind of beauty and grace and dignity that would sully even the proudest queen. He’d also never met anyone with wings before.

Play it cool, he told himself. Be suave, be normal.

Be normal. While you’re having a panic attack. While you’re on a spaceship miles and miles above your home planet. While you’re on your way to join a war… a war waged across infinite universes…

He took a deep breath in, tried to control his thumping heartbeat, and assembled a modicum of courage.

‘W-w-wings,’ he ventured.

‘Ten points for observation,’ she said, softly. ‘What’s wrong with you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Oh! Have you? Let me see it! Was it scary? Where did it go?’

Mevoine’s mouth went dry, his expression exceptionally blank.

‘Not a ghost, then,’ she said, disappointed. ‘What’s actually wrong with you?’

‘Nothing,’ he said shyly.

‘So I can put my wings down?’

‘D-d-down?’

Her wings ruffled, a rippling, fluffy red wave.

‘Down,’ she repeated. ‘I thought you might like some privacy to freak out. Everybody was staring at you.’ The blood-hued curtain dropped, the wings retreated, and by some anomaly of nature they seemed to shrink into the woman’s back, and flapped behind her arms like a rumpled cape. She smiled sweetly.

Mevoine straightened his legs, rubbed his shoulder. He wasn’t sure what to do next, how the conversation should proceed, and if he should be the one to continue it. Conversation wasn’t his forte, that had always been the case, but he hadn’t cursed his colloquial incompetence as much as he did then. He cleared his throat nervously.

‘So…’

‘You with Nelia?’ she asked.

‘I guess s-so. Are you?’

She nodded. ‘Isn’t it exciting? Seeing new planets, new species – new universes! I left my family for this, it better be good.’

It certainly would have been exciting for Mevoine if it wasn’t for his debilitating anxiety and the crippling fear of death lurking around the corner. But the young woman’s confidence and excitement was infectious, or, alternatively, Mevoine simply wanted to match the energy level, prove he was a worthy accomplice.

‘V-very exciting,’ he managed.

‘I mean, it’s so different. It’s a war, sure, but it’s a chance to explore and discover. Not that we haven’t discovered everything, we have, obviously, but…’ She paused. ‘Maybe I’ll wait until we know each other better before I unload all the crazy. Shall we?’

She started down the corridor, apparently setting a destination in mind. Mevoine decided his options were limited, so he trailed to her left, hanging back a step, giving her as much space as he could.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked as they navigated the perilous lanes of people traffic.

‘Mevoine.’

‘Mine’s Ailandra,’ she said. ‘Aila for short. Well, it is now. I got to choose it when I was twenty, means ‘graceful one’ on my planet.’ She chuckled. ‘It was meant to be ironic.’

Conversations occasionally open up a channel, a small opening through which the uninitiated can travel, and Mevoine sensed such an opening, a chance to consolidate his conversational hope and his social worries. It was a shame it wasn’t an avenue he had the skill to take.

He nodded.

‘I can’t pronounce my old name in this language,’ Ailandra claimed. ‘It’s just a jumble of vowels, really. Do you have a hunchback?’

‘N-no.’

‘A skin condition? A glandular problem?’

Mevoine frowned. ‘No.’

‘Oh. Does everyone look like you on your planet?’

‘No.’

‘But you’re so pale,’ she observed. ‘And thin. And your shoulders are hunched over like you’re carrying a bag of cabbages between your shoulder blades.’

He glanced around, uncomfortable. People had drawn attention to his scrawny appearance before but that didn’t mean he enjoyed hearing about it, or that he had become accustomed to blatant slights against his dwindling ego.

‘I know,’ he said quietly.

‘I just meant… if it was normal,’ she said. ‘Like it’s normal for me to have wings. Is it normal for you to have four arms?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s okay, then.’ She withdrew her wings further as a particularly large boulder with diamond eyes rolled past. ‘It’s strange here. I want to be comfortable with these… creatures around us, but it’s harder than I thought it would be.’

They followed the corridor to the left, where Ailandra finally commented on Mevoine limping half-heartedly a step behind.

‘Are you afraid I’ll bite you?’ An arched wing brushed against his nose.

‘N-n-no,’ he said, assuredly. ‘I just… I don’t know you very w-w-w… good.’

In truth, it was a conditioned presumption; for years he had been thrown to the back of the pack, to be forgotten, shoved aside like an annoying and needy pet, and for Mevoine this was his equipoise, his ultimate comfort and discomfort zone: a peripheral ghost trailing behind the crowd’s nucleus, outside the inner circle and forbidden from the outer. It was best, in his opinion, to stay clear of people and avoid spreading his discomfort to someone else like an anxiety-inducing plague.

‘You don’t need to know everything about me to walk beside me,’ said Ailandra. ‘Come on, step up.’

Mevoine crumpled. ‘I’m okay.’

‘You sure?’

‘Positive.’

No point in making her uncomfortable too, he decided.

Ailandra pummelled and elbowed her way through the crowd that had accumulated at the corridor’s end, gathered around as a disjointed, albeit colourful, mass enclosing a circular platform; where there wasn’t a path, Ailandra cut a new one, a wood-shredder cutting through a forest, a winged people-steamroller. When her elbows couldn’t find purchase, she’d spread her wings, arch her back, and employ them like feathered batons. Mevoine latched on to her like a socially anxious leech, and let her drag him through the amassed crowd, steering him between the tight huddle. She didn’t seem to mind.

‘See the platform in the middle?’ she shouted.

The raucous and cacophonous uproar filling the air like a terribly inept orchestra suggested to Mevoine he should nod, despite near-deafness.

‘It’s the portal to Nelia,’ Ailandra explained. ‘Well, to Morombe. I don’t know if Nelia’s around.’

Mevoine looked over the circle platform, on which the crowd was avoiding intruding. There was a faint blue circle in the centre, an ethereal ocean ring, enclosed in three larger circles that seemed to ripple gently, as if unsure they were supposed to be there. Mevoine could relate.

‘They’re all scared to go through,’ Ailandra observed. ‘They’re like cats. Do you know what cats are? They’re like little cute furry balls of hate. The Optivarr have one, I’m sure. Not important. Cats like to annoy you as much as they can, they’ll stand at the door and wait for you to open it so they can go outside, then as soon as you’ve let them out, they decide they want back in.’ She craned her neck over the crowd. ‘Morombe’s waiting for us and everyone’s standing around because they don’t want to go first. Lead by example, right?’

He opened his mouth to discuss but before he could utter a syllable she was in the centre circle, waving excitedly, wings flapping. An unwary wave of silence washed over the crowd; all eyes and eye-substitutes turned on her. Again she didn’t seem to mind. Mevoine considered she was the type of person who wouldn’t mind anything; with confidence as your armour, desperately few can pierce it.

She grinned wildly at her rapt audience, bathing in their admiration and wonder.

White light erupted from the circle and wrapped around her ankles, wispy spectral snakes ensnaring her feet, flaring bright against her dark black clothes, and wreathed her body like fire, consuming and spreading until she was completely immersed in blinding light, and then as quickly as it had spread the light vanished into a pin-prick, and Ailandra was gone.

Peering and curious eyes turned on Mevoine. He had been with her, the over-excited girl’s accomplice, side-kick even, and it was expected of him to follow her as if the invisible leash tethering them together extended between incomparable distances. As the eyes and eye-substitutes glared in his direction, dwarfed and calculated him, he started to shrink and wane, knees wobbling. He managed a delicate and awkward shrug, then shimmied backwards, intended for the crowd to absorb him, swallow him up so he was just another face, an impassive and immobile ersatz statue in a sculptor’s gallery.

The silence was broken in small segments, fragmented outbursts rustled through the crowd; incoherent murmurs to begin with, then a chorus of shocked gasps and shouting erupted and the huddled mass stamped the ground like they were putting out a fire, the eerie quiet Ailandra had carelessly dropped like a blanket suddenly pulled away, and it was as if the circular platform was suddenly a dancefloor and the crowd an eager and rather successful dance troop.

Mevoine looked precisely where he had been avoiding looking: down at his feet.

Sheet-white tendrils circled his ankles, as they had everyone else’s, and clambered with serpentine agility up his legs, around his torso, and screaming, blinding light enfolded him like a cocoon, wiped out the world, the spaceship, the creatures and unnameable things congregated around him, and reality went blank.

*

Something tapped him on the forehead, soft and light, comfortable even. Feathery would be the optimal word.

‘You can open your eyes now,’ said Ailandra’s voice, sprite and chirpy, like she’d recently downed a bottle of Kani.

Mevoine’s eyes were clamped shut, as were his lips. White light was burned into his retinas, a wavy blinding mirage like dying suns trapped behind his eyelids. Another tap on his forehead.

‘Mevoine, open your eyes. You’re being childish.’

Eyelids flicked open, real light poured in. Aila’s gilded smile was the first thing he saw, then the rest thawed into view. Reels of disinterested creatures had their backs to him and Aila, mesmerised by the strange and shadowed figure standing stoically on a levitating platform hanging above them.

They were in a sort of auditorium with a vast and curved purple ceiling above them, like a taut sheet wrapped tight around a pole; mirrors covered the left wall, reflected the glaring and confused congregation, crumbling ornate archways on the right led into darkness, and Mevoine stood in the centre, Ailandra poking madly at his side, and the crowd doted about him uncertainly. Most were fixated on the figure cloaked in wispy blackness, the hovering sentinel espousing nothing but mystery and authority.

Mevoine sensed a tinge in the air, like a smell or a heat, that eclipsed his other senses. It was a formless, shapeless invisible cloud, hanging aimlessly in the air. It was similar to a build-up of kinetic energy; charged and electric potential desperate for something to claim and mould it, like a blank canvas waiting for an artist to unlock its capabilities, use it to paint their masterpiece; the empty page for a poet’s magnum-opus. Mevoine felt it radiated from the shadow-shrouded figure.

Ailandra leaned close.

‘Morombe,’ she said in hushed respect. He thought he detected a tinge of fear.

The platform descended slowly, floating like a feather, and hovered just above the crowd. Morombe’s white eyes permeated the blanket of darkness like shrewd spotlights, searching and examining and calculating. As the platform lowered, so did an array of iridescent ocean blue orbs, streaming light in luminous and velvety curtains, floating to-and-fro like a flock of minnow, and Morombe’s darkened figure was lit up; blue waves washed over the crowd, each face glowed as if irradiated, and it seemed to Mevoine that the Vanguard had theatrical inclinations: the dramatically lowering light orbs, the descending platform, the platform itself, Morombe wreathed in shadows and glaring down at the crowd; it felt like an over the top rock concert, a performance to inspire, impress, and amaze. The performance hit its mark; Mevoine was awe-struck. Ailandra’s head was pressed to her back, neck craned, looking up at the mysterious figure starry-eyed.

Morombe struck Mevoine like a spear. His skin was ebony-black and glinted like diamonds under the blue glare, eyes like pearls, glacier-cold and harsh, bannered above thin and taciturn black lips, built like an avalanche, at least two heads taller than Mevoine, and like other Vanguards holding a station above the common rabble and gun-grunts tattoos were etched into his skin, across his exposed shoulders and chest, covering his broad neck in circular designs, configured like the inside of a watch, each one a mark of respect, of power, of dominance, and branded him as Nelia’s Presus. Mevoine could identify a few of the markings and designs; such as the spiral chest-piece given to those who had survived the battle of Iren-Kwel two-hundred years prior, and the bars around his neck that indicated his position as Presus. There were countless others he couldn’t figure out, in particular there seemed to be what looked like stitches tattooed along his arms and stomach, although these were covered by a heavy black jacket, and the rather paltry amount of information he’d been given failed to cover their significance.

Morombe’s silvery white eyes stared down at the gathering like a hard-boiled priest addressing his holy flock; and the Vanguard were holy. Religion was to Mevoine as beer is to the teetotal; intriguing, exotic, and likely to elicit a hearty headache on consumption. But there is a marked difference between knowing and believing. Morombe was his shepherd and would guide his hand to his enemies’ throats, in the Ogrohad’s name.

Morombe finally spoke.

‘You all know why you’re here,’ he said. It wasn’t the voice Mevoine had expected to hear; calm and collected, but at the same time powerful and booming, loud enough to fill the auditorium twice over. A man of his size and stature should command a dark, gravelly voice that could collapse a planet with a cough. Morombe’s was simply calm with a sharp authoritative edge cupping his words.

‘You are now Vanguards. All of you. Your life from this moment onwards belongs to me, to us, to Nelia. You fight for the Ogrohad. You fight for creation’s safety, for its future and posterity. I’m sure I don’t need to explain in detail how important this is, what it means to be a Vanguard. Our lives are dangerous; and yours shall be doubly so. The frontline defence is, for lack of a better term, you. And it is imperative you understand that. Wars are fought for many different reasons, for more than could be counted in a single lifetime, and yes, they can be bloody and brutal, savage and wild. This one is no different. The Pantheon will take no prisoners, they will grant you no mercy; you will reply to their brutality with your own. That is what it means to be a Vanguard.’

The platform lowered and cut a circle from the gathered crowd like a scythe through chafe, and there on the floor it gently rested, gracefully, like an eagle come to berth. The scurrying horde of blue orbs flipped and twirled around Morombe like bulbous flies. He was at level with his captivated audience, and reminded Mevoine of cult leaders he had read about; the kind that would enrapture potential followers with whimsy and silky charisma and sheer brute power. ‘At level’ would perhaps be a misnomer, for perspective and light-tricks had diminished Morombe’s full effect: he was at least ten-foot tall, like an inky and muscle-riddled tower that rose above Mevoine, and the stitches were in fact stitches that ran across his stomach, shoulders, forehead and back like railway lines.

The crowd backed away, astonished. Mevoine craned over their shoulders and wings and tentacles to see, for he too was enchanted.

‘Your enemy wages war against the natural order, against preservation and our future,’ Morombe continued. ‘They take our children, our lovers, our planets and our lives, they enforce their destructive ideal as truth and presume themselves as gods. There is only one true god, the Creator, and in Its image you have been made, in Its power you have partaken. You will protect It, at whatever cost you may have to pay.’

The crowd murmured. Morombe silenced them with a raised palm.

‘Lamia, the Pantheon, Vox, Ol-Tor, Vennjar: these are names you will know like your own. And when you face them you will feel no fear, for where darkness treads, we will follow. You must know our enemy, learn them, study them, feel as they feel, and never again shall you be afraid. The mountain does not move for the river, so the river must break the mountain, erode it, until the river is all that remains. Your enemy is a mountain, it is your job to erode and shatter and destroy that mountain, guide the river’s path. It is not easy to be a Vanguard; it is brutal, messy, violent, bloody and beyond dangerous. You are fighting against beings of an ascended nature, so above creation’s rules they’re part of an entirely different paradigm. Gods among mortals. We will do our best to prepare you.’

A devilish looking minotaur opened and closed her mouth soundlessly, like she was chewing invisible gum, while her vocal chords searched for the usual harmonies and intonations to croon a note of speech. Morombe’s pearl eyes glared toward her like supernovas.

‘If I gave the impression I was pausing for conversation,’ he said, ‘then allow me to rectify: be silent.’ He swivelled purposefully back to the centre; the minotaur, insulted and embarrassed, pressed her pointed chin to her chest and retreated to the crowd’s uneasy comfort. ‘Now… chain of command. You will each be assigned to a squad, a team, if you will, and each team will have a commander. Your commander reports to me, and I report to Nelia. Disobeying your commander results in dismissal. Depending on the severity, you could also face death or torture. This is usually reserved for those caught defecting to the Pantheon. I’d suggest, in light of recent events, that you consider your options very carefully. You’ve already made your choice, live with it.

‘If myself or Nelia issues an order, it is to be obeyed, even when against your commander’s will.’ He puffed out his chest, proud. ‘Never forget that you are Nelia’s soldiers, her defence, her hand in the world beyond here, and you should feel pride acting in her stead. It is a great honour to serve the Nephilim, time will show you that.

‘Nelia’s orders are absolute, in those you shall place your faith. There is but one exception to this rule. Should you be graced with the presence of the Optivarr, follow their word as law. The Creator does not speak to us, so the Optivarr are Its voice, Its hand; enactors of Its will. They cannot be disobeyed.’

His voice lowered to a deep grumble, like a territorial snake it was more for warning than aggression.

‘Many of you have heard what happened to Stenror, I have no doubt. It would be wise to forego conclusions and judgements, and avoid spreading rumours. We are without a leader for the time-being, but the Vanguard prevail. This is business as usual, we fight the Pantheon regardless of our own weaknesses. Stenror was foolish, his actions selfish and destructive, but as we have proven, the Vanguard force continues unabated. It is not by his selfishness we shall be remembered; it is how we act now that defines us.

‘You have each been fitted with devices called Socils. These are like interactive encyclopaedias, they’ll answer your questions and provide all the information you’ll need. They’ll be particularly helpful when you find yourself in places of which you have no knowledge.’

At once, the crowd patted themselves down in a unified search for the devices, Mevoine included. He was rummaging around his legs and feet and sides in a blind panic – something had been fitted to him without his knowledge, and he found this a deeply concerning violation – when Morombe’s disgusted snort shattered the unified panic. He didn’t sigh, but disappointment and enervation was implied.

‘What did you expect?’ he hissed. ‘A metal contraption hanging from your side? A cybernetic appendage dangling from your head? Socils are nanotechnology, fitted into the body, virtually undetectable. Harmless. You weren’t even aware they had been installed, why would you expect to find them?’ He shook his head. ‘Usually I’d say you were the clay from which we will shape our future. I will not be saying that today. Follow your Socils, they will lead you to your quarters, and there you will wait for further orders. Dismissed.’

Mevoine’s eyes shut reflexively as scorching light flared and spilled and filled vision like white lava. He almost bumped sideways into Aila, who was using her wings like curtains, was man-handled by an overly presumptuous lion-man, believing Mevoine’s panicked fluttering an offensive dance, and dithered like a defensive bird dodging a prowling cat until the blindness retreated and he found himself half-cowering, half-whimpering beside his winged protector like a beaten dog. There was no sign of Morombe, no floating lights, and in their place was canvassed silence and eerie emptiness. The ‘concert’ was over and the crowd was eager for an encore.

‘Nice guy,’ said Aila flatly. ‘But he’s not important, is he? It’s all about Nelia. Think we’ll get to meet her soon?’

Mevoine shimmied nervously in the quiet. Ailandra’s voice was the only sound in the empty air, and joining that lonely melody would be a challenging task for Mevoine. He felt the crowd’s disturbing group-mind turn its unloving attention in his and Ailandra’s direction. It was like they had burst into the room and announced their severe intolerance for large distorted groups of assorted creatures who called different planets home. Surely there would be a name for such an intrusive and intolerant branch of thought. Specie-ism, maybe. Planet-ism. Idiocy.

Fortunately this was just Mevoine’s perspective; the crowd regarded him as irrelevant, not even a minor nuisance; as one might regard an ant or a leaf. The only person staring at him was Aila, impeaching an answer.

‘No,’ he managed, and winced under a perceived and largely imagined communal glare.

‘Really? But we have to meet her sometime, she’s like our boss.’ She seemed disappointed, her wings wrapped around her like a blanket. ‘I wanted to meet her. Nephilim sound interesting, they’ve been alive – is that the right word? – since the beginning, they must’ve seen some awesome sights. Like, once, I saw a flutter-cry swoop underneath a sunset, flip and twirl and dance across the fiery orange sky like a flying ballerina, and I’ve never seen anything like that since. Nelia’s got stories, I know it, and I’m gonna hear them.’

The crowd – Mevoine’s fellow soldiers and comrades – dissipated into the archways like rats from a sinking ship, streams and streams of grunts evacuated in uniform fashion as though yanked on a pulley. He felt the same tug, the inexplicable desire and whispered instructions, leading him and Ailandra to their new home. It was like a magnetic pull, dragging him limp-footed in a direction he hadn’t been before, to a place he couldn’t possibly know. And he didn’t know how he knew that.

‘You feel that too?’ said Aila, rubbing her temple. ‘These Socils are a little invasive. It’s like I’m having thoughts that aren’t mine.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Like blood that isn’t mine. Not like it’s unnatural, it doesn’t feel bad, it just doesn’t feel… I don’t know. It’s weird.’

‘Yeah.’

‘You don’t talk much, do you,’ she observed. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll do plenty of talking for the both of us. Used to be on the debate team, I’d talk for hours and not a single person could shut me up. Not even the mediator. He’d beat his wings whenever he told me to shut up and I ran my mouth like it was about to get cut off. I could argue blue was white and two plus two was minus one. Yeah… they really hated me at the debate club.’

The cerebral pull was compelling Mevoine towards a drooping archway; his gateway to the future and war. Once he stepped through he would be a conscript, a soldier, and there was no turning back. He’d taken a lot of big steps thus far: joining the Vanguard, lopping off connection with his family, and he had spoken to strangers; all things considered, a good and busy day, and this archway was the threshold, the point of no return. At any point during this journey, as Mevoine was calling it for sanity’s sake, he could have withdrawn his commitment, walked away unscathed and slightly embarrassed, and found his way home.

‘You coming?’ said Aila, already halfway to the archway.

For a moment his mind got the better of him, slammed down the mental foot and refused to allow him to do this, to truly commit to something; something beyond anything he had ever known. The future was infested with mysteries and the unknown, uncertainty and turmoil; a rocky road riddled with potholes and dangerous low-hanging branches and tight curves and corners to be navigated at snail-speed. Anxiety would have you believe that whatever lays at the end of this road is not worth the dangers. Anxiety is wrong. An uncertain future is better than no future.

Mevoine took a deep breath, tasted the moist and busy air, filled his lungs, and followed Ailandra through the archway, currents of electric excitement and fear thrilling his veins.

*

Drifting across the blackness of empty space, where even the distant stars flickered frail and meekly poked through the dark curtain, Nelia’s ship sleepily swam in the black sea like a mammoth turtle exploring the furthest depths of the ocean. It was the size of a moon and structured erratically, like someone had given the original streamlined blueprint to a toddler with a poor attention span and an art shop’s worth of crayons. It was top-heavy, owing largely to the overgrown head of forest and moss that mushroomed over a slender and sucked-in waist made of an organically grown metal substitute that wrapped around the ship like a belt, and split the ship into two flora-laden sections; on the top and bottom sections ensnaring boughs arched and ducked and weaved together like an intricate living tapestry, coated in frost-crystalized moss that had seen the turn of centuries and survived countless battles, some of which had brandished their brutality in scorch marks and burnished scars.

From a distance it looked as though its architect had simply sliced a forest from its home, roots and all, and slapped one half on the top and the other half on the bottom, perhaps inspired by the shape of a burger, but on closer inspection this was revealed as an illusion, a measured and possibly intentional trick. The mid-section – fashioned from a Nephilim construct called ‘Valensium’ – seamlessly twisted itself into its arboreous upstairs neighbour, where ran corridors and dorm rooms and the general quarters of the ship’s inhabitants, and the bottom was the hangar bay, where collected the smaller fighter ships and the ‘business’ portion of Nelia’s domain; administration, strategists, storage rooms and the like.

Nelia’s ship wasn’t pretty to look at but it did the job, and in terms of Nephilim ships and constructs it certainly wasn’t the worst concept hatched from transcendent consciousness. It provided for her Vanguard in every possible way; food, gravity, atmospheric rendering, and in this sense it was a veritable and wooded haven for a multitude of species.

And it was Mevoine’s home.

His sixteen-bed dormitory, of which eight beds had been claimed, was cosy and intimate and out the way; close to the ship’s aft section, a position he took sincere reassurance in. Out of the way was the place he wanted to be, nowhere important, hanging at the side, not bothering anyone. His bed was tucked into a weedy alcove; forestry had invaded the dorm, thick branches and flower-limbs and dangling moss split between gaps in the ceiling and walls and floor, draped over one another chaotically, unequivocally entangled. Headphones didn’t exist on Jenhan, which was both a shame and a blessing since Jenhanian’s were genetically tone-deaf, and any music they produced would not only be awful and ear-shattering, it would likely debase musical theory for centuries to come; it was a shame however, that Mevoine didn’t notice the similarity between the knotted boughs and a pocketful of headphone wires.

He tucked his backpack under the bunk and sat on the edge of the bed. The top bunk had yet to be claimed and he had decided to take the bottom bed for simplicity’s sake; should someone claim the top bunk they would have to clamber up the ladder and disturb the sleeper below, and this was a social hurdle he wasn’t willing to jump.

To his left, by the sliding door, Ailandra stretched her wings and sat on the floor cross-legged. There were six other soldiers in the room, Mevoine was adjusting to the idea of living with them in close quarters. It wouldn’t be an easy adjustment. You can’t turn a stranger into a friend without talking to them – and you can’t live with someone and not speak a word.

Ailandra produced a small foil packet and rummaged around at its contents.

‘Morombe’s a bit intense, isn’t he?’ she said, mouth full. ‘He’s like a priest I used to know. Passionate about his faith, dedicated to another’s will. I suppose it’s hard for him to argue, since he answers directly to Nelia. Imagine what it must be like to be in constant contact with a creature from the dawn of time.’

‘You can’t call her a creature,’ said Berrel. ‘Nelia deserves more respect than that. Nephilim aren’t creatures; they’re like gods.’

Berrel was a short stubby man with a head shaped like a squished marrow, a greying beard down to his chest, and a circle of blonde and thinning hair around his protuberant head. His skin was like jelly, looked malleable to the touch, and over it he wore an old battered suit that had seen better days; but had obviously never seen the inside of a washing machine. Mevoine had given him a wide berth, his skin seemed sticky and supple, and he was eager to avoid accidental touch and maybe losing a finger in the process. He was smaller and wider than Mevoine, and considerably older. Mevoine couldn’t place an age to the drooping face, since his skin’s elasticity impeded accurate estimates.

‘You know what I mean,’ said Ailandra. ‘What else am I supposed to call her? Can’t call her a person, that’s not right. Being, maybe. That doesn’t fit either, I guess they’re just Nephilim. It’s like calling space a thing, because it’s not really a thing, it’s just space.’ She sniffed the air. ‘What’s that smell? What are you eating?’

She was asking Durane, in the bunk above her. He was a quiet young man with almost nothing superficially different about him, other than having two arms in place of four, but that was normal given current company, and he had two differently coloured eyes – heterochromia – one was pale blue, the other deep red. His greasy brown hair was slicked back, pulled at his forehead like it was clinging to life. Whilst he was happy to keep to himself, as far as Mevoine could gather, he wasn’t entirely himself.

‘Who wants to know?’ he said. The food in his little plastic tub was blood-red and oozing, and smelled like something which formerly inhabited the kingdom of the living.

‘I’d like to know. It smells awful. And it’s not like we can open a window.’

‘See that thing over there? That’s a window. You can open it – go ahead, you judgemental – there’s an artificial atmosphere around the ship. You won’t get sucked out – but hell, if it happens don’t expect me at your funeral – I promise.’

Ailandra cocked an eyebrow. Durane smirked.

‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I’m tired from the trip. I’ll be nicer tomorrow – don’t count on it, bitch.

‘Rude.’

‘You have my sincerest apologies – hah! Good one!

Calmness is a currency. Once it runs out, you can be sure calamity and rage follows. Fortunately for Durane, Ailandra was extremely rich in calmness, a billionaire that had accumulated her fortunes over a lifetime of work. She smiled, and it was a smile sweeter than ice-cream and cuter than a baby turtle riding a koala.

‘You’ve got a bite to you,’ she said. ‘I like that, at least you’re not boring. What’s the story with – uh – with the sarc? Just so I know how to avoid being bitten.’

‘I’m glad you asked,’ he said, and placed his food down for the first time. ‘It’s my specie’s quirk. I didn’t know it was a quirk until the Vanguard came – could’ve told me that years ago – honestly, I didn’t know it was possible not to have another voice in your head. My entire society was built on that.’

‘Ah, we had something like that on my planet. It was called a split personality.’

Durane scowled.

‘It’s not a split personality – do I sound split to you?! – it’s the same personality. I am one person, one brain, one mind – it’s easier than cutting grass, how is she not getting this?’

‘Then why are you nice one second,’ said Aila levelly, ‘and nasty the next?’

‘Think about the people in your life, all the people you know, and think about that statement. Really think about it. Nice in one moment, nasty in the next. That’s just people.’

‘Well. If you say so.’ She gnawed on what looked like seeds and caught a sentence on the tip of her tongue; holding back. ‘You’d know better than me,’ she added, ‘what you are. At least you’re nice sometimes.’

Mevoine stayed quiet. He wasn’t particularly interested in conversation and learning these personal stories and histories, he was interested, however, in the rapid expulsion of consciousness. That is to say, he was tired.

He did note, however, that Durane was hiding something. In addition to his defensiveness, his heterochromia switched sides whenever his personality flipped like a switch from normal to not-so-normal, and he suspected Ailandra had noticed this too.

‘So I’ve met three of you,’ said Aila. ‘There’s still three to go. How about you, Mr Whiskers? Or is it Mrs Whiskers?’

The creature in question was on the bed to Mevoine’s immediate right. This thing was the most alien creature he had seen since joining the ship, eclipsing Morombe’s lofty size and powerful glare, Berrel’s marrow-head and jelly-skin, Ailandra’s angelic wing-span, Durane’s heterochromia and split-but-not-split personality, and the ship’s own invading head and foot of forestry and metal-foliage fusion.

Mevoine had read plenty of books during the nervous run-up to properly joining the Vanguard, one of which offered information on dragons, fantastical descriptions and pictures abound. There was one he remembered in particular, because it was sitting not five-feet away from him.

Scaly green skin, a long arched neck that moved like ribbon, pronounced twiggy whiskers protruding from a sloped and wrinkled snout, teeth like scimitars, gangly arms and bowed legs thick as tree trunks, ears like a cat and eyes like coal; Mr Whiskers – as Aila called him – was quite the sight to behold. He wore a woolly jumper draped over his spiked shoulders, and he had to bend his serpentine neck to fit into the bottom bunk. He was missing a pair of leathery wings, a proclivity for accumulating mountains of gold, and a taste for setting things on fire. At least, thus far, he was yet to indulge in any perfectly harmless arson.

‘Mister,’ he said, in a deep voice that crackled like fire. ‘Mr Monsoon. But I like Mr Whiskers.’

As far as Mevoine could tell, he smiled.

‘Can you breathe fire?’ asked Ailandra. ‘The dragons I’ve heard about can breathe fire. And they can fly.’

‘I don’t have your unique attributes, I’m afraid. No wings, you see. My younger brother was given that gift. I was given the gift of fire.’

‘Gift?’

‘What planet are you from, wing-girl?’

‘Noumous.’

‘Ah. I call them gifts; if my memory is correct, you call them genes. My brother obtained wings – I obtained fire.’

Aila’s glittery eyes widened.

‘Show us!’ she chirped.

Monsoon’s wrinkled and blue-veined face creased and furrowed. ‘You want me to breathe fire?’

‘Please?’

‘Right now?’

‘Yes!’

‘Here?’

‘Yes!’

‘I should warn you,’ he said gravely, ‘this is wild fire. It is untamed. I would have no control over its hunger; and it would hunger, desperately, for all it could see. It would consume you, swallow you whole, sear bone and skin and -’

‘You getting fired up or not?’ snapped Durane.

Monsoon coughed nervously. ‘Perhaps another time.’

‘Oh, go on,’ Aila whined. ‘Please? I’ve never seen a dragon before. It wouldn’t be right, seeing a dragon for the first time and he doesn’t even breathe fire. Just a little bit?’

‘Don’t pressure him,’ said Lyrik.

‘He might turn the fire on you,’ said Syna.

‘And then you’d be a cooked chicken.’

‘And Durane would eat you.’

‘Or maybe…’

‘If Monsoon was hungry…’

‘He has the teeth for it…’

Lyrik and Syna were the last two dorm members to arrive. Lyrik was like a feather, dainty and breezy, and perhaps not ‘all there’, by Mevoine’s judging, ditzy to a fault, and spoke slowly, as if she was unsure she was speaking at all, and had a tendency to drift off into thought, staring vacantly at the walls and whispering quietly to herself. Her hair was the colour of sunset, cool blue with streaks of rose-pink and fiery orange, and ran down her back in a single swollen plait. She was the kind of person who’d lose herself in a sign factory.

Syna was smaller, but looked like she could fight her way out of a nest of snakes with a stick of butter. She was attentive to the conversation, interested, and was the only group member to pay Mevoine any attention, occasionally glancing headlong at him with her round intense eyes; he became uncomfortable at the short and sweet stolen glances. She wasn’t as empty-headed as Lyrik, keen-eyed and conscious of her surroundings, but she wasn’t mean-spirited. She was a curious young girl who wanted to absorb as much of her new life as she could in one mighty breath. Her eyes darted around the group, greedily digesting each word like a scholar in a library. She had pink hair wrapped into a top-bun, and wide owl-like eyes that fixated on each detail whilst passing over them entirely.

They were both freakishly pale, ashen skin, like neither had seen a sun in any form their entire lives, and wore ankle-length, tight-fitting black dresses with tangles of lace along the skirt hems. Looking at them was slightly unnerving; Mevoine unconsciously placed his hand around his throat for protection, fearing there was a vampiric edge to them.

Presently, Lyrik hung off one edge of the bed and Syna sat wide-eyed beside her, one gentle hand resting on Lyrik’s forearm.

‘Monsoon,’ said Aila in a childish tone, ‘you wouldn’t eat me, would you? I don’t think I’d taste nice.’

‘I’m sure you’d taste delectable, dear.’ Monsoon chuckled. ‘I won’t be eating anyone, I’m – uh – what’s the word? I don’t eat meat.’

‘Idiot?’ Durane murmured.

‘Oh, I’m the same!’ Ailandra exclaimed. ‘We can’t eat meat on Noumous unless you want acute radiation poisoning. But never mind that, get on with the fire-breathing! It’s getting chilly.’

‘It’s not cold in here,’ said Monsoon, testily. ‘Maybe it’s your clothes. Maybe you should use those wings like heaters, wrap them around you. Stop expecting someone else to warm you up.’

He was getting flustered, his jaw snapped involuntarily, ears flapped on their own accord. Mevoine suspected, as did everyone else, that Monsoon was pyrotechnically-impaired. A dragon that couldn’t breathe fire was remarkably different to a dragon that wouldn’t breathe fire; one was proud and headstrong, the other was Monsoon.

‘Can you… can you not breathe fire?’ said Aila, wary.

‘Of course I can!’ Monsoon snapped. ‘Whenever I want! I’m good at it, too! You’ve never seen a flame like mine!’

‘Performance problems, eh?’ Durane smirked. ‘There’s a pill for that, you know.’

Mevoine dragged his thin, scratchy duvet over his head, forgetting for a moment that he wasn’t alone, then put it back in a blind, anxiety-riddled panic. Thankfully for him, the room was immersed on Monsoon’s unravelling impotency and failed to notice his minor faux-pax.

‘I don’t understand,’ said Ailandra. ‘You said you’d been given the gift of fire – that it’s in your genes – how can you not use it? That’s like me saying I can’t use my wings.’

‘Can we move on to another subject?’ Monsoon growled. ‘You’re not getting fire and that’s that. Not because I can’t, I can! I just don’t want to.’

Aila chewed absently while Durane giggled quietly to himself. Monsoon flashed his fangs, a poor attempt to silence the distant laughter. He seemed upset that his inability to produce fire was a humorous subject for his fellow soldiers. Lyrik and Syna whispered inaudibly to each other like schoolkids discussing their latest crush.

‘You mentioned you know Noumous,’ said Aila. ‘I take it you’ve been, but I don’t remember seeing a dragon.’

Monsoon perked up. ‘I’ve been around. That’s the reason I joined the Vanguard. See, I’ve been across the universe, in nearly every galaxy there is, and I’ve seen most of what this universe has to offer. There is a limit to how many planets you can go to, how many cultures you can meet and understand, before life becomes boring and the journeys long. This universe tires me. Then the Vanguard came and offered an opportunity; an opportunity to explore and discover different realities. It’s an offer I found impossible to decline.

‘And yes, I’ve been to Noumous. It was around three-hundred years ago. Beautiful planet. The Boreal Garden was exquisite, I spent two days exploring it, sampling the life and the vibrancy. I’ve never forgotten walking through that garden, it was like a personal paradise.’

‘I guess you went before…’

‘I wouldn’t have the heart to go back now, dear.’ His black eyes narrowed to pin-pricks. ‘I heard about your specie’s suicidal vendetta. And what did it gain? You almost destroyed your entire planet, all for nothing. How goes the nuclear winter?’

‘Well, not very good,’ she said tentatively. ‘We can’t go down to the surface anymore. What doesn’t kill you right away poisons you. Nobody can live down there anymore. They built cities in the sky before the bombs dropped, I guess they knew what was going to happen. That was before I was born, I’ve only known the air.’

‘Just as well. What I’ve heard about the surface doesn’t suggest to me a trip there would be positive for your health… or your sanity.’

Ailandra pursed her lips. It was obvious this conversation about her home planet was upsetting her, and Monsoon was learned, astute and caring, and snipped the conversation short. Mevoine’s interest swelled; he wanted to know Ailandra’s history, where she came from, how she came to be in the Vanguard. The conversation swerved off course.

‘You’ve been around a while, then,’ said Syna, unblinking eyes tapered and intense. ‘Does that mean you were at Iron-Kwell?’

At the mention of Iron-Kwell, the room went silent. The hallway joining the dorm to the ship’s labyrinthine core was empty, as if everyone had vacated as Iron-Kwell’s name was spoken. All eyes turned toward Monsoon; even Mevoine was on the edge of his seat – closer to the group than he’d usually like to be.

Monsoon carefully considered his reply.

‘I have walked in its aftermath,’ he said finally. ‘Recently. Iron-Kwell was a Vanguard skirmish, an attempt to repel a Pantheon incursion. They were invading in high volumes, and I don’t know what you have been told but transporting an assault force this size involves quite literally ripping a hole in the universe. The Vanguard were there to intercept in just as large a number. The resulting battle broke into a chasm, a rip in the universe. It was the largest battle ever waged in this universe; two mighty tides crashing against each other – so I’ve been told.

‘It was… haunting. It is not a place I would be eager to re-visit. It was like something had been cut from the fabric of reality, and inside it, you were disconnected from everything else. Like a void, a lonely bubble. You are alone in that place in a way unlike anything I’ve known.

‘Iron-Kwell is not a planet or a galaxy, you would be forgiven for thinking that, as I did. It is a region inclusive of three small galaxies, and when I say small, I mean in relation to the universe’s vastness. There are hundreds of planets, desolate and lifeless. Some have been burned to a cinder, others are drifting husks. Life is absent, nothing can grow, nothing can survive. Iron-Kwell is the universe’s dead-weight, the black-hole where millions have been drawn in and destroyed. Cutting it free would do us all good.

‘As I say, it is not somewhere I would go again. To be there is to feel every death, every screaming lost soul damned in that hell. And they stay with you, they follow you. The ghosts of the past hunt the hopes of the future, and they have clung to me.’

There was a communal retreat.

‘Not literally,’ Monsoon clarified as the group nervously huddled closer again. ‘The memory has permanently burrowed into my mind; I will not forget our ship navigating between charred ship chunks, lifeless and shattered planets, broken and flameless stars – the emptiness and the silence. It is a place filled yet empty, deafening but silent. The carnage is absolute. Have you ever been in a place, no matter how hard you might try, you can’t shake the feeling everything is wrong? That is Iron-Kwell; the scar cut into the universe and left to bleed it dry.’

An eerie silence gripped the room in an icy fist. Mevoine was transfixed. History hadn’t interested him much – more than once he had chucked history books aside to vanish into fictional worlds and nebulous mysteries – but this story was different; it was an historical titan. The Pantheon’s title sparked an unexpected rage. Knowing the Vanguard fought for creation’s safety, in the Creator’s name, and that the Pantheon defied their vision of an idyllic future and their preservation of the natural order, incensed Mevoine on a deeper level than he thought he cared. People had laid down their lives in freedom’s name; normal people like him and Aila, to cleanse Lilith’s corruption, the antidote to Her poison. Liberty has a cost, and it is buried underfoot.

He pondered Iron-Kwell’s brutal legacy, imagined a tri-galaxy-wide battle, a black canal along which fought brave Vanguard soldiers, the courageous freedom-fighters, and their enemies, the crimson-clad sea that crashed down like a tsunami, swept down the trees and the buildings, swallowed and consumed and destroyed and poisoned and corrupted. To believe the dismantlement of peace and nature is paradise, is to betray the very soul of truth.

‘Morombe was at Iron-Kwell,’ Berrel observed. ‘He had that tattoo. Looked like a clock vomited on him.’

‘He’s scary,’ said Lyrik shyly.

‘Eh, he’s just stressed,’ said Durane. ‘He runs the whole ship, makes decisions for Nelia – better meet her soon or I’ll be pissed – it can’t be an easy job. Back home I worked in a law firm. Top lawyer I was – in other words, the rest were morons – and let me tell you, managing isn’t easy. Everything comes down to you, you’re the top dog, full responsibility if anything goes wrong. ‘Course Morombe’s scary, he has to be: he’s leading an army in war.’

‘Scary,’ Lyrik repeated.

‘And things are going wrong,’ Berrel whispered. ‘You heard what he said about Stenror? I didn’t think he’d mention it. He shouldn’t have mentioned it, it’ll cause a stir.’

‘I heard he killed an Optivarr,’ Ailandra whispered back, voice wobbling. ‘But that can’t be right, the Optivarr are indestructible.’

‘Almost,’ Monsoon corrected her. ‘Almost indestructible. You would say space is indestructible, yes?’ He waved a claw through the air. ‘It would be like trying to destroy an ocean with a fork. We can all agree on that. But there are ways to destroy space. Creation provides us with whatever we need. It may not be possible to cut space with, say, a normal knife, but there is something out there that could. The Optivarr are the same; seemingly unstoppable, creation’s juggernauts, the Creator’s voice and hand, beyond our understanding, but they are not immune to death, nothing is.’

‘I heard, right,’ Aila said, ‘one of ‘em is a giant spider, right, and she eats people whole and she has this nest and she can crawl over the walls. And she kills Vanguard for fun.’

‘And there’s another one,’ said Berrel, fearfully lowering his voice. ‘He’s a zombie that turns people to stone just by looking at them.’

‘Nobody can do that,’ Durane scoffed.

Monsoon growled. ‘You, funny-eyes, you’re not getting this. Brain cells not working at full capacity, are they?’

The wise old dragon puffed out his chest as Durane leaned over the edge of his bed, strangely coloured eyes blazing. Mevoine shrunk into the bed far as he could, fearing what was about to happen. Confrontations, arguments, verbal fencing, he wanted nothing to do with them. A talent he had acquired from his years of neglect and bullying was the ability to be almost completely invisible, to fade into the background like a distant tree in a painting; you wouldn’t notice he was there, he was just a part of the greater whole.

‘Uh – what were you saying about the Optivarr, Monsoon?’ said Aila tensely. ‘Something about being indestructible?’

The dragon’s nostrils flared, coal-eyes never leaving Durane.

‘There are ways to kill the Optivarr,’ he growled through his teeth. ‘The Pantheon’s knowledge exceeds our own, only they know how to kill one, and the Optivarr themselves. Stenror gained this knowledge after defecting to the Pantheon… and used it.’

‘How do you know all this?’ Syna inquired.

Monsoon finally broke his steel gaze with Durane. ‘Information is easy to find once you know where to look. The soldiers spill everything if you ask them the right way. And I believe… Yes, our Socils provide information as well, though I’m not sure how they work.’

Durane retreated from the bed’s edge, murmuring incoherently under his breath. ‘Stupid lizard… can’t breathe fire, what kind of dragon…’

‘I’d like to meet one,’ said Aila. ‘The Vanguard are scared of ‘em. I want to know why.’

Syna kissed Lyrick’s cheek, then rummaged through her baggage and procured two liquid-food tubes, one of which she handed to Lyrik, the other she kept for herself. Her pale fingers angrily squeezed the tube, like she was excavating the last few drops of toothpaste from their hidey-hole. She caught Mevoine watching her.

‘How ‘bout you, four-arms?’ she said. ‘Fancy meeting the Optivarr?’

Mevoine’s heart stopped. Everyone was looking at him, expecting a clear and lucid reply, something normal and sociable, for it was a talkative group and should he be himself, they’d treat him like an outcast, the group’s resident leper, and all because his civil and social acumen was the same as Monsoon’s ability to produce fire.

Then his heart jump-started, at a thousand beats per second, as the full severity of his current predicament clamped around his throat.

‘Um. I-I… it w-would be… good.’

The sentence fell out of his mouth with all the grace, dignity, and poise of a chicken tumbling down a hill.

‘Were those words?’ Durane snarled.

Syna shot him a dirty look. ‘If you’d shut your face for ten seconds, maybe someone else could talk.’ She turned to Mevoine, smiling and calm. ‘I didn’t catch your name.’

‘Mevoine.’

‘I’ll call you Mev.’

He appreciated the effort but that didn’t change how many people were staring at him. He’d been completely silent during their conversations, as was his proclivity, and now it was his turn to speak; hands on the conch. He was like an exotic flavour of ice-cream; it was unknown to the majority, new and interesting and potentially tasty, and they wanted to know how he would taste.

A nickname was a new experience for Mevoine – for Mev. He’d been called names, yes, numerous derogatory titles had been granted to him, but a term of endearment surprised him, like a crown suddenly placed on his head. He couldn’t help smiling.

‘So we’ve got Whiskers, Mev, Aila, and funny-eyes over there,’ said Syna.

‘And what do we call you two?’ Durane remarked. ‘Since you’re joined at the hip I’m guessing you have the same nickname – like pale-pair or… fashion-disasters.’

‘We’re not joined at the hip,’ said Lyrik absently.

‘Try the soul,’ said Syna. ‘And try closing your mouth once in a while, every time it opens it’s like verbal sewage.’

As Durane murmured under his breath, cursing quietly to himself, Ailandra slid across the floor toward Mev, offered her food like an olive branch. He was the only one in the group not to have food, for the simple reason that between joining the Vanguard and tolerating his father’s negligence he had forgotten to bring any. On the way to the dorm he had passed several food dispensaries, and he knew that somewhere on the ship there had to be a cafeteria in some alien arrangement or another, but partaking would have to wait until his hunger outweighed his cowardice.

The tiny seeds in Aila’s pouch were appealing to Mevoine in the same way a cloud is appealing to a fish. He took one anyway, to pacify his stomach’s famished growling. Lyrik and Syna returned to each other’s whispered company, Monsoon and Durane exchanged flashes of teeth and savage glances, and Berrel sat quite happily silent and alone. Ailandra grinned widely at Mev.

‘Do you feel welcome?’ she said. ‘I thought I’d feel welcome, like part of a huge family, but I don’t, not really. Morombe didn’t help, he just sent us on our way without so much as a hello. I just thought… there’d be a sense of occasion, a big to-do. D’you not think there’d be something bigger? I don’t know. What do you think?’

Mev’s heart jumped; his opportunity to speak and he wasn’t prepared.

‘I guess… it’s h-happened quickly.’

‘Very quickly. Just yesterday I was at home, sipping tea. Now I’m here on a massive ship serving the Creator in a holy war. I miss my tea.’

Mevoine withheld his opinion on Morombe’s brief appearance. It stood to reason that he was a busy man, organising and strategizing, controlling and delegating Vanguard war-assets across the universe: so why would he bother showing face? Mev guessed it was a sort of tradition, to appear before the Vanguard grunts in the event they actually survived, but otherwise he didn’t care. Morombe’s brevity was a product of apathy. Those that survived long enough would be granted further audiences; this possibility seemed to Mevoine an unlikely future, a sea he would never sail.

Aila leaned close, head bobbing beside his knee, arching and twisting her wings behind her.

‘Durane’s hiding something,’ she whispered. ‘So’s Monsoon. He says he’s been on Noumous, and I know he said it was before the bombs dropped but I’d have heard about a freakin’ dragon walking ‘bout the planet. Even if it was like an old story your gran told you when you were little, or a folksy yarn in a book somewhere. A dragon wandering around the Boreal Gardens is big news.

And Durane; he’s got quirks. Notice his eyes whenever he… changes? They swap colours. That’s not normal.’

Durane’s attention was engrossed entirely on Monsoon, too distracted to notice his name being mentioned, but Syna’s attention flicked in Mev’s direction. He felt her iron gaze pierce him like a knife, tried to act normal and chew on his seeds. Like a perfectly normal person. Not panicking. At all.

‘But I like them,’ Aila continued quietly. ‘I know some of ‘em are hiding stuff but it’s not like I can call them on it. And who says it’s important – we all have things we’d rather forget. That’s the beauty of joining this army: we can be someone knew, someone better. If it’s important, what they’re hiding, it’ll come out eventually. And they’ll be forgiven.’

She waved wildly at Syna, who nodded back, then continued whispering to Lyrik.

‘Why’d you join, Mev?’ Ailandra asked suddenly.

He shrugged. ‘No real reason.’

‘Adventure? Exploration? To be the valiant guardian? Come on, everyone’s got to have a reason.’

‘No,’ he lied.

‘I couldn’t stay on my planet, not after the Vanguard call came. Did everyone on your planet forget too?’

‘Yeah.’

‘It was like sudden planetary amnesia. Only the people who answered the call remembered it. I thought I’d imagined the whole thing, after I got home from meeting the – what was he called? Recruitment officer? Him. After I met him, I brought it up to my friends and they didn’t know what I was talking about, but it was a worldwide broadcast, it was reported everywhere; our first contact with another species outside our planet. Then nothing. Not a word. Took me a couple weeks to find someone else that remembered. She pulled out at the last second, left me out to dry, and then she forgot. Some people just can’t take the strain.’

Mevoine could relate. He was still sure that at some point he’d duck out the war and return home, forget the battle and winged women and dragons that couldn’t breathe fire and soul-bonded couples. Like most things, uncertainty was the blockade between possibility and actuality. How would he get home? Where did he look first? Could the teleporter take him back to Jenhan? Where was said teleporter? Was someone guarding it? And most importantly: would the Vanguard let him leave? Morombe didn’t seem forgiving or accepting, and this would be desertion. He might as well defect to Lilith.

As Ailandra talked to half-listening Mevoine, for his mind was occupied wondering what was in those seeds, a low hum echoed throughout the dorm, a profound rumble, like a mountain rolling on its back. Everyone swivelled toward the door, where a silhouette flared against the anti-septic white.

The man stepping through the doorway was old, greying, and definitively formidable. A scraggly white stubble framed his wrinkled cheeks and pointed chin, black-strapped goggles wrapped around his face, the tinted frames completely covered his eyes. He wore a shabby, torn-up and dirtied brown trench coat and a battered colour-faded fedora. His overall impression was of dirtiness, like he’d waded through a mud-trough, or survived the trenches of war. Strapped to his legs, by way of a harness around his ankle, was a small grey pistol, its long barrel tucked into his time and weather-worn desert boot. He had a look that if not for the black goggles would remind an observer instantly of cowboys and the wild-west and duels at high-noon with the sun beating down as a lonely tumble-weed bale rolls nervously between the duellers.

Ailandra was the first to pick her jaw from the floor.

‘Welcome!’ she exclaimed excitedly, though her voice crackled with uncertainty. ‘You’re just in time to exchange life stories.’

The dusty gunslinger showed no change in expression. Mevoine found it impossible to tell what the old man was feeling on account of the tinted goggles.

His thin lips curled into a smug sneer.

‘That bed taken?’ he said, pointing to bed above Mev’s.

‘No,’ he replied, disarmed. His accent was unlike anything Mev had heard; strange cadences rising and falling across the syllabic landscape.

‘Then move.’

Mev’s face dropped, as did Aila’s. The old man was disinterested in their shock, jerked a thumb in a gesture for ‘move – now.’ Mev nervously collected his bag as the group watched in stunned silence, and transferred to the top bunk. It wasn’t as if he’d argue.

The old man sat on his bed, removed his boots with huge effort, and fell back on the pillow, hat pulled over his face, a signal that was understood to mean conversation was out of the question.

Nobody was quite sure how to proceed. Within ten seconds the mysterious man had managed to dampen the night, move Mevoine to a new bed, and shock with brute force the entire group into total silence; and it seemed this immediate effect and its encompassing breadth was inconsequential to him. Syna exchanged nervous glances with Monsoon and Aila, and shot daggers at the indifferent old man. Mev tried to get comfortable, forcibly snapping a few branches off a particularly invasive branch that swarmed overhead, then stopped when the crunching noise established itself as the only noise.

Aila, still beside the bed, elbowed the frame and shook the mattress.

‘Hey! You comfy?’

The old man didn’t look up. ‘Perfect, darlin’. Why’d you ask?’

Aila’s nose wrinkled at the word ‘darlin’’.

‘Well – sir,’ she hissed, ‘you come in here, all dusty and cloaked, and move Mev, and – and -’

The man’s taciturnity drained her anger. It’s almost impossible to rage at someone when their foremost reply is cold, cool indifference. Rage is like an echo; it has to bounce off an appropriate surface in order to perform its primary function. A surface that doesn’t return that echo is untouchable. Respond to anger with serenity and silence and that anger will evaporate.

‘What’s your name?’ said Aila, tetchy.

‘Lee.’

‘Lee what?’

‘Lee nothin’. Could I have some peace, girl? Gotta get some shut-eye.’

Ailandra sneered, then withdrew to her bed, wings stretched out as if she was about to take flight. Mev tucked his feet under the duvet and turned his back to the room. When he closed his eyes he could imagine being at home, back in normality, where dragons stayed in books and old dusty cowboys had their own beds. Maybe when he opened his eyes again he’d wake from the perplexing and tortuous dream. His life as a soldier hadn’t exactly started well, and his new acquaintances stirred little hope for the future, for a change in what was gradually becoming the status quo.

‘Oh, of course!’ said Durane. ‘Make yourself comfortable! Throw your feet up, pull your hat down! Everybody’s welcome here. Hey, why don’t we make you extra comfy, hm? Get a nice roaring fire. Do we know anyone who could provide such a luxury?’

Monsoon growled. Berrel nervously shuffled away from the quietly-raging dragon like he might explode. Mev was already done with the group. Between the trivial bickering, the confusion and the panic, his life with these strangers inhibited optimism like a flood-bank. Monsoon and Durane had already begun a stern feud, Lyrik and Syna were occupied with each other’s company, Berrel forewent the usual conversational avenues and if he was interested in anything but food and the Optivarr he was incredibly skilled at concealing it, and Lee hadn’t been in the room five-minutes and already his cool, demeaning hatred for the group oozed and propagated like a stench. Ailandra was comparatively normal, if overly talkative and forbearing.

Then there was him: the lonely four-armed introvert, the silent and stuttering pseudo-soldier out of his depth. Like respect, belonging is earned; Mev’s earnings were so small you could fit a hat on them. Once again he was the outsider. And once again he couldn’t decide how he felt about that.

‘Wait…’ said Ailandra, craning her neck like a dog on the scent. ‘What’s that? Anyone else feel that?’

Monsoon echoed her concerns. ‘It sounds like a bell…’

Mevoine felt it too; ringing in his head, screaming and lurid and alert. It filled his ears until he could barely hear the group behind him. He tossed and turned like a nightmare was promulgating, spreading down his arms and legs, sparking foreign thoughts, melting mental barriers he hadn’t known were there. His brain was no longer his own; ideas and orders materialised on their own volition like they had been imbedded there surreptitiously.

Socils infested the mind like plant roots: once the seed is planted it erupts, and sinewy thought-tendrils invade and spread, culminating in a complicated map of chemicals and organic diodes. Its primary function would be comparable to an in-head computer, a microscopic hub for Vanguard activity. For the uninitiated, Socils provide little more than communication and the odd headache, but as the Socils acclimate to their new environment – and its new environment acclimates to them – provided for the Vanguards is an information expressway, where one thought can leap-frog over another with ballerina precision, producing answers almost instantly, like a mental search-engine. There are numerous benefits to integration – cell and synapse rejuvenation, increased mental faculties, heightened awareness, among myriad others – but these take time and understanding to unlock.

Presently, Mevoine sat bolt upright, panicked, and failed to register the branch looming above before it was too late. As he rubbed his forehead and hoped no-one had noticed, barked into his brain was an order. He struggled to make any sense of it.

‘Wha…’ Ailandra paced, pausing momentarily, then beginning again, and stopping once more. ‘What does… What?!’

‘Don’t like this,’ Lyrik whispered, twirling her hair frantically. ‘I didn’t think that.’

Syna softly calmed her, stroked her ocean-blue locks affectionately.

It’s all right,’ she cooed, though nerves jelly-legged her voice. ‘It’s nothing to worry about. I’m feeling it too.’

‘We all are,’ said Durane shortly. ‘Someone care to explain? You, with the gun and the hat – and those stupid-ass goggles – you know what this is?’

Lee grinned, slowly lifted his hat and swung his legs over the bed. He sat on the edge, fingers steepled, yellow-toothed grin widening by the second. Excitement played across his features, as did horrid smugness, in knowing more than current company his ego inflated like a balloon.

He waited until the group’s attention was his, when they hung on his word, anxious for the grin to split and an answer to emerge, before he finally replied. Even Mevoine braved popping his head over the bed’s edge, like a turtle poking out its shell, in order to fully absorb the old gunslinger’s gilded words.

Lee’s toothy and wrinkled smirk vanished.

‘This is war,’ he said in a gravelly voice, like he hadn’t spoken for months. ‘This ain’t no holiday resort. We’re here for a reason. Y’all battle ready? You better be. That there ringin’ was a call to arms, kids. We’re goin’ in, guns a-blazin’.’

‘You mean to say…’ Aila began, shivering.

‘Fightin’, girl. There’s fightin’ to be had. Trouble’s come callin’.’

Mev’s oldest friend gripped him by the shoulders. Of course, this had to happen sometime; this was a war after all, and for every war there are soldiers, and for every soldier there is a battle. Victory was irrelevant, survival was paramount. He hadn’t prepared properly – he hadn’t prepared at all. To go into battle so quickly took him by surprise. Before he had a chance to familiarise himself with his brand new home, all the sights and smells and sounds, and his militarised bunk-buddies, battle called his name. Murder and bloodshed. The crop was coming to harvest.

He leaned in as Lee rose to his feet, grinning madly. The old cowboy enjoyed his power and authority over the others, the self-assured, self-serving bloated arrogance that accompanies extrinsic knowledge. He gestured to the door.

‘Time to see who’s a soldier and who’s cannon-fodder,’ he cackled. ‘My money’s on four-arms and brainless over there. Any o’ you folk wantin’ in on a pool?’

‘I don’t even have a gun!’ Aila shouted, starting up. ‘There was… exploration, adventure! I’m not ready – I mean – going into a fight – but –’

‘Who’s brainless?’ Syna growled as Lyrik hooked an arm into hers.

The mayhem-bomb detonated: Durane howled savage laughter, Syna scowled and roared, fists clenched, ready for violent deployment, Lyrik groaned and tried to pull Syna away from a potential fight, Monsoon made a strange sign in the air, puffed his ridged nostrils and inflated his admittedly sizable chest in a dominant display, Berrel scrunched his knees to his chest and melted into the wall, Lee stood in the room’s centre, enjoying the volley of insults launched his way, basking in the anger and frustration.

Then there was Mevoine. He had taken to turning his back on the furious diatribe that sounded like clucking chickens, ignored the white-noise and loud voices, and focused on quelling his panic and fear. Fights were uncharted territory: guns, fists, explosions, blood, death, how could he deal with that? He couldn’t handle talking to someone, let alone shooting them. Self-preservation is learned; we learn to protect ourselves or run, to fight and save what we are, only by learning what it is to be hurt, what danger lurks at the edge of mind, how deep the knife can cut and the bullet pierce. A sheltered life can protect, but it doesn’t prepare.

He controlled his laboured breathing, wiped his rheumy eyes. It felt like his body was shutting down, the panic bubbling in his chest like a virus, spreading to his extremities, bodily departments closing their doors to protect the primary core. The universe was opening its jaws and he was walking in blindly. It was a matter of time before they snapped shut again, him inside. How he missed his boring life, the humdrum tedium and the transparent predictability. At least he didn’t have to kill anyone back home.

‘Collect your goddamned senses!’ Lee shouted over the acerbic and clamorous din, smirking conceitedly. ‘There’s Pantheon to hunt, and I’m feelin’ hungry.’

*

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